For Greek athletes, nudity was a norm. The Olympics bought together athletes competing naked in almost all disciplines from all parts of Greece. The word Gymnasium its self translates as ‘a place to train naked’.
These practices, cemented in Greek art works featured in an exhibition entitled “Defining the body in ancient Greek art” at the British Museum.
The exhibition its self explores the nude form, so much so that as you enter the exhibition; you are greeted by the marble backside of Aphrodite. The sculpture’s tiny plaque describes how typically, women were portrayed as “wild and passionate, and posed a threat to the stability of male society, so the female body had to be covered, contained and controlled” until the portrayal of the Goddess Aphrodite in the 4th Century.
Yet interestingly, the clothes worn by the women in these ‘clothed’ pieces are artfully draped sheer fabrics, carefully following the lines of the female form. In this way there is as much revealed as attempt to conceal as the flimsy fabrics press on the breasts and abdomen of the subjects. In many ways this has obvious linkage with pornographic films and the modern appropriation of sheer and mesh fabric as erotic. It seems evident that in cases where the skin is translucently masked that whilst a reaction to clothed individuals is the same on the surface, there are inescapable erotic undertones.
The sculptures in general throughout the exhibitions demonstrated the Greeks’ ideal male and female forms (or male/female as there was a hermaphrodite present). This comes back to the presence of nudity in athletics, as it would obviously demonstrate the body in its entire and heavily edited muscular form. However, this is not the only reason. Arieti describes how the Greeks felt “that the mind ought to control the body was a pervasive Greek ideal… control and decorum was to be expected of those participating in athletic contests. They were to observe the calm composure exemplified in athletic sculpture” (1975:435). Therefore, if an athlete became sexually aroused in any way it would have been apparent to all the spectators.This display of moral control and authority was of course heightened by the fact that they “were the only people to compete naked” and as a consequence they could well believe they were the only people capable of such self-control” (Arieti 1975:436).
Arieti, J. (1975). Nudity in Greek Athletics. The Classical World, 68(7), p.431.